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Diocesan Synod

March 2014

Presidential Address by The Bishop of Southwark, The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun

Bishop Christopher addresses Synod

Last year I used my Presidential Address in Lent to offer a spiritual reflection on Journeying and Pilgrimage.  This year I wish to follow that precedent, which I realise puts me in danger of establishing a tradition. 

As part of my preparation for Lent I visited our link Dioceses in Zimbabwe.  To be more accurate, the Director of Communications, Wendy Robins, realised that in order to raise the profile of the Bishop’s Lent Call we would need much more information and visual material about the projects we are supporting. With Zimbabwe at the heart of the Lent Call we worked out, with the assistance of my Chaplain, Mark Steadman, a rather ambitious programme of consecutive two day visits to each of our four link Dioceses, spurred on by the promise of the Mothers’ Union vehicle and a driver from Bishop Cleophas Lunga in Matabeleland, where we started our journey, landing in Bulawayo Airport almost exactly three weeks ago.  From Matabeleland we journeyed on to Gweru where we were welcomed by Bishop Ishmael Mukawanga, who put his Land Rover to very good use taking us along unmade tracks at considerable speed to some of the more remote centres of mission in Central Zimbabwe.  From Gweru it was about a three hour drive to Masvingo, having re-routed ourselves to avoid the floods and a collapsed bridge on what would otherwise have been a more direct road.  Then on to Mutare in the Eastern highlands, very near the border with Mozambique for two days in the Diocese of Manicaland and tours of the Missions at Penhalonga and Bonda, before driving to the capital city and a final evening with the Bishop of Harare, Dr Chad Gandiya, who sent us to preach and participate in worship in three churches on our last Sunday, the Cathedral for me. 

I simply want now to bring words and pictures of Faith, Hope and Love from our brothers and sisters in Christ as we take advantage of our companion links to deepen understanding between us in our respective parts of the Anglican Communion.  But first let us be clear about the nature of these links which continue to evolve in fruitful ways. They are built on a commitment to partnership: partnership in prayer and friendship, partnership in a joyful proclamation of the Gospel, partnership in development and support which is not about dependency but a mutual exchange of gifts. 

Wendy Robins commented in her Cathedral sermon last Sunday:

‘In the space of seven full days - and the bits of days that are available as one arrives and departs - what became clear to me as we journeyed around that vast and beautiful country was that Christianity - in many different traditions - is alive and well there and that it is helping to shape the response to many of the difficult situations which are faced by the people.’

Indeed it is and I hope our Lent Call material and what will be made available on the web during the coming weeks of Lent will encourage us to respond in new ways this year and to give to the various projects and causes with renewed vigour because of what we see and hear. 

Bishop Godfrey Tawonezvi in Masvingo was consecrated in 2002 to lead the newly created Diocese.  It was formed out of large tracts of land from the other four Dioceses together with schools, churches, parishes and mission districts in abundance; but only two stipendiary priests.  So the challenge has been to grow a diocese, to build an infrastructure that will support mission, ministry, development and essential life-sustaining health projects touching the lives of many people in largely rural communities. Bishop Godfrey says: ‘It is my obligation as Bishop to shepherd the Diocese that was entrusted to me on my day of consecration and enthronement, and to promote the mission of the Church.’ Yet what we saw in Masvingo was also happening in each link Diocese with their bishops taking the lead in encouraging vocations and training, in making provision for deployment, in building new and renewing dilapidated churches, priests’ houses, schools, teachers’ houses and clinics.   

Again if I may quote our Director of Communications:

‘...the generosity and commitment of the people in the Anglican churches that we saw was challenging. I could tell you countless stories of the work of capacity building undertaken by the volunteers in the Mothers Union; of the men and women who have committed themselves to ensuring that their child has an education, even if they go hungry; of the priest who travels between his five parishes by bicycle in order to ensure that they have services and then add that the parishes can be half a days cycle apart!

But, most especially, I want to tell you of the building project at St Philemon's, Gambiza, in Central Zimbabwe Diocese. There has been a church there for some years and they share their priest with five other parishes. So, a while back Bishop Ishmael told them that they could have a resident priest if they built a rectory and so that is exactly what they are doing! The rectory will be ready by the summer and so Bishop Ishmael knows that he now has to find them a priest to live there.’

As you will have discerned there are subtle differences of approach between Strategies for Ministry in our respective Dioceses and Episcopal styles for that matter; but having long held to the doctrine that the Church is both a vocational as well as relational community of faith, this conviction was reinforced at every turn and in every encounter during a very blessed and rewarding visit, albeit a brief one.  Moreover one year on from the return of churches and rectories and schools in the Dioceses of Manicaland, Harare and Masvingo to their legitimate custodians within the Church of the Province of Central Africa, there is a very tangible resilience and confidence starting with the bishops, as those who have endured hardship and persecution, yet have not at any point doubted the One who Calls, their Lord and ours.  Our link bishops, Cleophas in Matabeleland, Ishmael in Central Zimbabwe, Godfrey in Masvingo, Julius in Manicaland, in the face of such great challenges are at one in calling their Dioceses to mission, in fostering vocations and with remarkable perseverance in following Jesus, the One who did not turn back but gave his life as a ransom for many.

At the top of the Mount of Olives, way above the Garden of Gethsemane, almost without warning, there is a sudden change in the terrain.  This is known as the Watershed.  The Watershed marks the abrupt beginning of the desert, the Judean Wilderness, and the barren land falls dramatically, down and down to the Dead Sea, hundreds of metres below sea level, the lowest inhabited place on earth.  Jesus went out into the wilderness where he spent 40 days and nights in prayer and fasting.   As we shall hear in the Gospel on the first Sunday in Lent tomorrow, in being tempted by the devil, Jesus was confronted with different ways open to him to exercise power.  He chose to listen to God, his Father and thus held on to his humanity and his destiny.  This was the basis of his whole ministry and of all that subsequently happened to him.  Jesus remains faithful to his heavenly Father as he considers God’s loving purposes for him.  As we consider our own observance of Lent, we hear the voice of the Church calling for self examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting and self denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.  And we remember Jesus in the wilderness, giving everything, giving himself, giving his life wholly at the outset of his Public Ministry.

At the culmination of his life Jesus was again on the Mount of Olives, praying for guidance in the Garden of Gethsemane.  10 minutes fast walking would have taken him to the Watershed and the anonymity of the wilderness.  This time however Jesus knew that he was to encounter his fate not in the desert but in facing Jerusalem, a different type of engagement  - no longer with the Tempter, rather with the civic and religious authorities.  Followers of Jesus are at first described in the New Testament as People of the Way.  The Church in Lent focuses all our attention on the Way – those things that distract or hinder our journey we are encouraged to discard. 

So let us enter fully into the spirit of this holy season, asking God to set our hearts on fire with the knowledge of His Love, as we who have lost our way return to the Lord.  I pray that the blessing of Almighty God will rest upon us as we meet in Synod today, I pray that we may draw encouragement from the Faith, Hope and Love we share with our brothers and sisters in Christ in our link Dioceses who value so highly the bonds of fellowship and friendship between us and I wish you all a good and holy Lent in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who Calls.